A golden bullet for climate change?
The 2nd series of Snowpiercer has recently arrived on Netflix, and for those who aren’t familiar with the show (a great lockdown watch), the story introduces the concept of a 10-mile long, non-stopping train housing the last surviving members of the human race. Why are they living on a train? Well, the inhabitants of the train are onboard due to a global apocalypse that resulted in the earth freezing over. It may sound extreme but the relevance to geoengineering becomes apparent when the story-line reveals why the big freeze occurred: it was the disastrous consequences of scientists' attempts to halt global warming by using artificial methods to cool down the planet!
Of course, this is all fiction and the series is designed purely for our entertainment but the concept of using proactive, rather than reactive measures to combat global warming is not confined to the storybooks. Geoengineering is a real concept and there is active research currently underway that is investigating the creation of a man-made ‘screen’ in the atmosphere to dim sunlight. Whilst the science of this is complex, the concept is less so, and the appetite for investigating this type of solution seems to be gathering pace.
Only this month ScienceMag.org reported that US geoengineering has received a $4million investment from the US congress to support its research. This investment signals approval for further study into two emergency methods to cool the earth. David Fahey from the agency involved in the research, the NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Adiminstration) has described the two methods as potential ‘Plan Bs’ for combating climate change if our other methods fail to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Although the agency makes it clear than the implementation of these Plan B methods could be as far off as the next century, the current investment levels indicate how ‘real’ they actually are.
Plan B x 2
So, what are the two Plan B geoengineering ideas anyway?
Essentially there are two distinct approaches. The first takes inspiration from the effect of past volcanic eruptions which emitted huge clouds of sulfur dioxide. The idea is to mimic this effect by injecting the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide (or similar) in order to shade the earth from intense sunlight.
The second, method derived from the impact of long clouds that act as reflective pathways left by ocean freighers involves improving the ability of low-lying clouds to act as shade over the ocean. This would be done by using an aerosol of sea salt particles to create a similar effect.
Both methods have been recommended by scientists in a report entitled "Climate Intervention Strategies that Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth."
Both plans obviously involve ‘tampering’ with nature and unsurprisingly these methods and the research that supports them have come under fire. Some have expressed fear that injecting aerosols into the atmosphere might destroy the ozone layer or alter our weather cycles. There has been talk of catastrophic results including harmful radiation levels and extreme natural disasters. Opponents of the artificial sunshade projects not only argue that there are too many risks and unpredictable domino effects, but also that it might take the emphasis off of our current work in reducing carbon emissions in favour of these seemingly easier ‘quick fix’ ideas.
Indeed as with every scientific development there will always be fear and scepticism and rightly so, but could the ideas actually work and provide us with the perfect way to protect the planet? Without proper research, tests and experiments there will be no way of knowing the consequences of any such method, if indeed it could actually work at all. Recently, the Sweedish Space Corporation gave permission to Harvard University researchers to test a stratospheric balloon. This is planned for June this year and will involve flying and releasing a test stratospheric balloon 12 miles above Kiruna in Sweeden. If the test proves successful, this would lead to another test in which a chalk-like substance of non-toxic calcium carbonate would be released into the atmosphere to evaluate whether it could reduce the sun’s harmful effects by reflecting sunlight away from the earth.
Backing from the brave
Existing papers on Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiments, or SCoPex as the research is known, reveals that funding has come from Harvard University’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program which itself is funded by figures as prominent as Bill Gates. With such firm and high-profile backing it is obvious that these sunlight dimming project are not simply pie in the sky, but ideas that could eventually become reality.
Whichever route the investors, scientists and politicians take, the one thing that's for sure is that any decision to go ahead with such a solution will require extreme consideration, not only for the future of global warming but for humanity itself.
What are your views? Do you think projects such as this are a valuable weapon in the battle against global warming or a disaster in the making? Let us know on our social media channels.